Remember, Reconnect, and Represent

This past July 4th, I was honored to be invited to be the keynote speaker at the Chicago History Museum’s 4th of July celebration.  Here is a copy of my remarks.

I would like to begin by thanking President Lassere and the Chicago History Museum for the invitation to share some remarks at this 4th of July celebration. As I reflected on what I might say today and how to frame my comments, I took inspiration from one of the most famous speeches in American History- the Gettysburg Address

Many of you know, and maybe even at some point in your education, had to memorize, President Lincoln’s remarks were 271 words long, beginning with the now famous phrase “Four score and seven years ago,” referring to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln took 10 sentences and less than 5 minutes in his dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Did you know that Lincoln was NOT the main speaker that day? He was actually preceded by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts politician whose 13,607 words took over 2 hours to deliver! Who do we remember today? Given this, I will take my inspiration from Lincoln and aspire for brevity with, as Lincoln described his speech, “a few appropriate remarks.”

I am a teacher. I taught civics and history for 27 years at West Chicago Community High School, and for the past 6 years, I have had the privilege to support educators throughout the Land of Lincoln in meeting new civics and inclusive history mandates. Over the course of my career, many things have changed, and some remain the same. When I began my career in the 1990s, I had to navigate a presidential impeachment and a contested presidential election–and here we are again!  As many of you who follow the news know, teaching history and civic participation has become fraught with increasing polarization in this country.  It is true that we can see this polarization as one between “blue” and “red.” But, the polarization I help educators and school communities navigate on a daily basis is much larger–it is the division of “us” vs. “them”, “ my people” vs. “those people”, “plurality” vs. “tribalism.” It is rooted in an insidious fear by some of the enemy of “the other.”

The Chicago History Museum has asked each of us to take time today to combat this with the three “Rs”- Remember, Reconnect, and Represent. I want to take just a few minutes to share what these actions mean to me so that you might reflect on what they mean to you. I believe that the health of our constitutional republic may depend on it.

REMEMBER I believe that we need to remember and practice, what the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap calls, “Civic Honesty and Reflective Patriotism,” How can we offer an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is simultaneously honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the founding of the United States without tipping into adulation?

Daniel Immerwahr, a professor of history at Northwestern University wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post in 2020 that explains:

These are the contours of the battle over patriotism in the curriculum: Should students learn of their country’s virtues or shortcomings? Should they leave class feeling proud or ashamed?

I teach history, and such questions have always struck me as odd, for two reasons. First, we design curriculums around what students will learn rather than how they’ll feel. The aim of a geometry class is not for students to love or hate triangles but to learn the Pythagorean theorem. Similarly, the point of U.S. history isn’t to have students revere or reject the country but to help them understand it.

Closing the piece, Immerwhr advocates, “The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.”

This is why cultural institutions like the Chicago History Museum are vital to the American experiment. In the words of its mission statement, the Museum provides learning, inspiration, and civic engagement to connect people to Chicago’s history and each other. And in remembering this rich history of the struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I believe we can move closer to fulfilling our nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum– out of many, one.

RECONNECT is the next charge from the Museum for today. Reconnect to our civic power so that we can see ourselves and others in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution which begins with, “We the People of the United States, and our charge to “form a more perfect Union.”  

History at its best, provides mirrors for us to see and understand ourselves, windows to see and understand others, as well as sliding doors to step out and take informed action to better our communities.

One example that illustrates this is my friend Shonda Ronen’s 1st-grade classroom. Her class undertook the study of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white New Orleans elementary school in 1960, to ask the essential question, “How can a 1st grader make a difference?” After being provided a “window” into Ruby’s experience, these 1st graders looked into the “mirror” and started Operation Includer, Not Excluder in their elementary school–taking informed action to share with others on how to be more inclusive of others and collecting pledges from students throughout the school and members of the larger community to make their community a better place.

For more inspiration, one of the museum’s permanent exhibits that can help all of us understand our role as civic participants is Facing Freedom in America. The exhibit is based on the central idea that the history of the United States has been shaped by conflicts over what it means to be free with stories from women’s suffrage and the formation of labor unions, to Japanese American incarceration, and a local school boycott. The exhibition reconnects us to the idea that freedom is NEVER free and it involves struggle.  As my grandmother would say, “You don’t build muscles by lifting feathers!” I personally do not understand some recent initiatives in the US to ban the teaching of material that makes people “uncomfortable”–I would never have taken physics! But seriously, history is often uncomfortable as are most things that stretch our learning edges. We all need to lean into the bravery it takes to “get uncomfortable,” listen to understand, confront our assumptions, and expand our experiences.

Finally, the Chicago History Museum challenges us today to REPRESENT.  “Represent” is a verb that, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means to “be entitled or appointed to act or speak for (someone), especially in an official capacity.” However, for today’s event, the Urban Dictionary might be more accurate. To represent is to “lend physical presence or voice on behalf of a constituency defined by geography or purpose.”  Who do you represent in “We the People?” How are you using your voice and power for the purpose of creating “a more perfect union?”  

While some may choose to represent by running for political office, as the women featured in this afternoon’s film at the museum, most of us can start with exercising our agency and power through the small daily choices we make between doing what is right over what is often more convenient; by choosing to listen to understand our neighbors first, and then respond; by being open-minded to understand and learn from the stories of others in our pluralistic society; without sacrificing the legacy of our own lived experiences. To speak when we see injustice, for as President Lincoln said, “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”

In closing, take time this 4th of July to remember and practice Civic Honesty and Reflective Patriotism. Reconnect to your civic power through the narratives and histories of those who went before us to learn how to live today. And represent.  This is where we can start to see ourselves as “we the people.” This is how we can start to create “a more perfect union”. It may not be as grand as some of the narratives represented in the Chicago History Museum. Still, it is what we can do, in the closing words of the Declaration of Independence, to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” –Thank you.